Issie shifted her backpack and entered the door of an antique shop in Chicago.
“Hi, can I help you, little lady?” said Stuart Byrne, sticking his grey head out of the back workshop. The little girl, about eight years old, and of Asian descent, plopped her bag down. She pulled herself onto a stool by the customer service counter. The old man came out.
“Are you lost? Where are your parents, darlin’?” he asked.
The jingling bells above the shop door interrupted his questions. A woman approached the counter. She was dressed elegantly. She wore tall, black high heeled shoes with silver toes. Her elegant brown curls and perfect French nails was an indication that she could mean a lot of money for Stuart if she bought something or commissioned him to find something. Sometimes movie makers needed him to find things. Stuart was good at that. He was a Crow.
“May I help you?” he asked the pretty lady.
“Yes, I’m here to pick up the necklace I bought from you last week. You said you’d have it repaired by today?”
“Ah, yes! Mrs. Pierce! Give me just one minute,” said Stuart and disappeared into the back room. The lady studied Issie.
“Hello, young lady,” she said.
Issie just stared at Mrs. Pierce.
“Okay…” said Mrs. Pierce, trying a different tactic. “What’s your name?”
Issie pulled her chalkboard out of her bag, worked for just a minute and then gave it to the lady. She had drawn a heart and a pair of shoes. Momentarily perplexed, Mrs. Pierce shrugged and shook her head. Issie pointed at her shoes and smiled.
“Oh, you like my shoes? Why thank you, sweetie! But, you could’ve just said that. Don’t you talk?” Issie retreated shyly to her stool.
Stuart came back with a blue necklace box. He opened it for Mrs. Pierce’s inspection. The red rubies shined in the light against an antique setting. Mrs. Pierce let out a small sigh of satisfaction.
“That’s beautiful, Mr. Byrne,” she said. “Excellent work, as always! I don’t know where you find these things. I am going to New York tomorrow for a movie shoot and I know my leading lady will love it. She’s so easy to dress, with that tiny figure and…” Mrs. Pierce spoke about the joys of being a costume designer. Stuart listened with interest as he carefully packed up the valuable find and charged her for the order.
Issie, who had watched the whole exchange from her perch, perked her head as if she had just heard something in the distance and was trying to understand it better. She let out a small noise, jumped off her stool and touched Mrs. Pierce’s hand. Mrs. Pierce followed her lead and gave the little girl her hand. Mrs. Pierce noticed the odd sensation of a small wind by her ears, as if her face had been brushed by tiny wings. Issie dropped the lady’s hand and grabbed her chalkboard again.
A minute later, the bells jingled violently as Mrs. Pierce left quickly with her purchase.
“Let me see that,” Stuart said and he reached for the chalkboard. “Now what could you have drawn that would scare her so bad?” He saw that the little girl had drawn an airplane in flames. Before he could ask any questions, she grabbed her chalkboard, looking terrified, and ran out the door herself.
“The lady I sold the necklace to yesterday was supposed to be on that plane. Do you think she got on? “ Stuart asked his neighbor, Clark. The evening’s “breaking news” showed dramatic pictures of an airplane crash. It had been destined for New York.
“Do you think you’ll see that kid again?” Clark asked.
“I hope so. She reminds me of someone,” Stuart replied, staring off into space.
“Really? I know just about everyone you do, since we’re both in the same Murder,” Clark said. He was referring to their clan designation for Crow Temics. A Murder of Crows.
“Nah, my man. This was a long time ago. Back in the 70’s.” Stuart lit a cigarette. “Did I tell you I was in South Korea in the 70’s?”
“Yeah, you came back in 1974, right?” Clark asked. Stuart nodded.
“Well, I met someone there. Hwa ja and her daughter, Haneul,” Stuart said. “Hwa Ja was a Butterfly. But I lost her.”
“Damn, man! You had a bad for some Korean lady? What happened to her?” Clark grabbed two beers out of the refrigerator. It had started raining outside.
“It was raining the day we met, just like this…” Stuart began.
Stuart stepped out of the doorway to the porch and the small dirt alley outside. He lit a cigarette and took in the scenery. By the looks of things in the sky, the July monsoon rains were about to start and he thought it was about time. The sun had barely made it over the rice fields of the village of Anjung-ri before the humidity made his green army t-shirt stick to his chest. The rains didn’t bother Stuart the way it did some of the other soldiers at Camp Humphreys. He liked the sound of the heavy rain. Peaceful. Melodic.
Pitter patter, pitter patter. Here it was, starting to come down faster. Down the small alley, he saw a woman running to get out of the rain, hovering over a large, cumbersome bundle with legs held tightly against her chest. Stuart took off his green field jacket, threw out his cigarette and met the woman in the middle of the street. He threw the left side over her head and led her back to the shelter of the porch.
Immediately, the woman sat down on a crate on the grocery porch and checked on her squirming bundle. Stuart realized it was a girl, about eight years old.
“Hi,” he said and pointed to the girl, “Okay?” The woman smiled and nodded, understanding that he was checking on the child.
“Speak English?” asked Stuart. He motioned to his mouth. She shook her head no. He put his jacket back on, and dug in the pocket for the half candy bar he had saved. He motioned from the candy bar to the little girl.
“Is it okay?” The woman nodded again. Stuart thought she was beautiful. Her long dark hair was pulled back, with a few rebellious stray strands sticking to her slim, perfect neck. She was fussing in Korean over the child, straightening her clothes and wiping the water off her forehead.
“Stuart,” he told her and pointed to his chest She looked up and nodded.
“Hwa Ja”, she replied.
“Hwa Ja. That’s beautiful,” he said. He pointed to the baby, who was happily licking chocolate off of her fingers. “What’s her name?”
“Haneul,” she said.
“Hwa Ja…Ha-nool?” he said, trying to pronounce the name. She shook her head, amused.
“Han-nle,” she said, stressing the n sound. He nodded his understanding. Haneul finished licking her fingers and reached up to Stuart with a bright smile. Chocolate makes friends with kids everywhere, Stuart thought.
Things had turned for the worse. Stuart supposed he could try visiting her parents’ house. They didn’t like him much, but he shrugged that off. Hwa Ja’s family didn’t like the soldiers. They had turned her daughter into a whore, like so many of the village girls. And then there was Stuart, showering a widowed prostitute and a child that was not his with care and gifts and seemingly wanting nothing in return. No, they didn’t trust him at all.
Hwa Ja was sick – bound to be, from all the men she was with. But, her parents didn’t seem to mind the money it brought in. Hypocritical, he thought. They saw him as just another American soldier. They didn’t know that he and Hwa Ja were good friends and that he had never once asked her for sex.
They were brought together by the one thing besides humanity that they had in common. They were Temics. He was a Crow and she was a Butterfly. They were bound to each other, obligated to protect each other. He remembered the day they found out.
He was visiting her again at the bar after his duty ended. She wasn’t in her customary place, serving drinks to the servicemen and the locals. He asked around and one of the soldiers said, “Good luck with her, mate. She ran off crying. You won’t get anywhere with that one.”
He found her in the back, inconsolable.
“Guns,” she sobbed, ruining her perfect makeup. “Ajung Ri.” The war had been over for over ten years, but there were still skirmishes. It took him a little coaxing to get her to tell him why she was upset.
“What are you saying? Of course there are guns! You’re near a military base.”
“No, that man…”
“The one you were with? Out there?” he pointed towards the main bar.
“He die tomorrow,” she wailed.
“How do you know?”
“I feel when I touch him. The Wind tells me and I feel the bullet here,” she said and she pointed to her chest. She looking at him as if she was searching for something. She was testing him. If he ran off because she was crazy, then she knew he couldn’t be trusted.
“Hwa Ja, can you be completely honest with me?” he asked. She nodded.
“Are you Temic?” She looked very confused. Of course, stupid Stuart. She wouldn’t know that word.
“An animal. Do you have an animal? Special to you?”
“Yes. See butterflies. All the time, butterflies,” she said, “What mean?”
Stuart laughed a gut busting laugh, spun Hwa Ja around in the air, and hugged her. She looked at him like he was a demon.
“That’s the best news I’ve heard in years!”
“You want man dead, Stuart?” she asked, shocked.
“No, of course I don’t, but you, your vision and butterflies…you’re not alone! I’m a Crow. I’m just like you. And the odds of meeting another Air Totem, too!”
“You see pictures, too?”
“No, that’s your ability. I’m a Crow. I can solve complicated problems. I collect things and invent. I’m the best mechanic in the United States Army because I’m a Crow Temic!” Stuart was so excited he could hardly contain it. He hadn’t met another Temic in years, being so far out. She was staring. She didn’t completely understand his excited words and he was speaking too fast. When the conversation started she thought Stuart would run from her because of her abilities, but now she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t run from him instead.
He started to explain…
The memory of that, a year ago now, would always stay fresh for him. For Hwa Ja, Stuart was a safe place and the only one who knew her secret. But, Hwa Ja’s parents had no reason to trust him. They didn’t know either was a Temic. Their reaction to his presence on their doorstep was terse and unwelcoming.
“You go,” said the gruff English of Hwa Ja’s mother through the slit in the door.
“No,” Stuart replied in stilted Korean, trying to sound resolute, “Let me in. Let me help.”
The door opened and Hwa Ja’s mother waved her hand in the air dismissively.
“Ha! Help!” she said bitterly. Hwa Ja’s mother was angry. Her daughter was sick, and she was also a widow with a ten year old daughter. Hwa Ja was a burden. Stuart brushed past the woman and went to sit by his dear friend’s bedside.
“Hey, Flutterby,” he said gently and he brushed the hair off of her forehead. She opened her eyes and when she saw him she smiled.
“Hello, Old Crow,” she said back in her beautiful Korean accent. Stuart had been spending the past two years learning Korean from her, while she learned English from him. The use of their pet names for each other brought tears to her eyes.
“I die,” she said. Her English was getting better, he thought bitterly.
“No! No, you’re not dying, Hwa Ja. Just feeling like it. You’ll be up in no time,” he said. But she shook her head again, the tears flowing freely.
“I Butterfly. Butterfly reads the Wind. Wind says time. But..promise…” she said, getting choked up. She looked over at Haneul, napping peacefully on a small sofa, the Barbie doll Stuart had given her for Christmas clutched protectively in her small hand. The little girl was showing no signs of being a Butterfly, just like her grandparents.
Only Hwa Ja could “read the Wind”, as she put it. Stuart had learned that it was her term for the strong intuition inherent in that Totem. She had once told Stuart it was because her skin was as sensitive as the butterfly’s wings, able to feel the slightest vibrational shift.
Hwa Ja was so good at pleasing her customers or hiding and getting away fast when she needed to. She could blend into her surroundings, or stand out in regal beauty, with elegant clothes and hair. A perfect mimicry and the ability to survive by blending in or standing out as needed. But, butterflies couldn’t survive venereal disease.
“Promise…” she said again, emphatically.
“Anything, Flutterby,” he said and stroked her forehead.
“Fear for Haneul. I die. Parents no want,” she said. Hwa Ja started to sob, the emotion that comes with the thought that her child would suffer because of her.
“They’re her grandparents,” he said. “I’m sure they love her, honey.” Hwa Ja shook her head.
“You American. You do not see. They not want her. She come from me. Prostitute.”
“That’s barbaric…what will happen to her?” he asked. How can anyone do that to an innocent child? He knew it was a culture thing, but he still didn’t think it was right to deny a child for the sins of the parent.
“Place for child, no parent. Bad place,” she said, not knowing the word for orphanage. “Promise, I die, you take her. America…find new parents?” Hwa Ja was very sick, but the Butterfly was digging into his forearm with the strength of an ox. Her sobs were coming fast now, her eyes pleading for her daughter’s life. Stuart looked over at Haneul, her long black lashes peacefully moving against her cheeks as she slept. Haneul did not know the precarious position her little life was in. How much pain the world around her could dish out.
How would he get Haneul out of South Korea, much less find new parents? He wasn’t due to ship home for another six months. How would he convince the government that he should take a Korean child – a single man and unmarried? Could he safely leave her with her grandparents long enough to work it out?
“Stuart?” she implored again.
Marriage…that was it! He felt so blind!
He took Hwa Ja’s hands and bent his face to hers to look deeply into her eyes. He knew his solution. He loved her and understood her like no man ever could. He’d been there for her as their friendship and love blossomed for two years. He could do this for her and save Haneul, too.
“I love you, Hwa Ja. Get better and we can get married and I’ll bring you both home with me,” he suggested. He couldn’t believe that he would lose her. So, why would he only take her daughter? He could save them both from this life.
“I love you, too,” she said, as Stuart’s proposal brought a smile to her lips and softened her grip on his arm. “But, it no work. I die first. Please…”
“No, really, we can get married soon! I’ll get the papers drawn up and go talk to my superior officers and then I can have both of you legally leave with me as my family. When we get to the States, you’ll have the best medical care. And I’ll make you both so happy Hwa Ja!”
It was decided. After much kissing and hugging, and to the consternation of Hwa Ja’s parents, he left Hwa Ja to explain the situation to them in joyful tears as he headed toward back toward Camp Humphreys. He could hear Hwa Ja’s mother yelling in fast Korean.
Apparently, the idea of Hwa Ja marrying an American was adding insult to injury.
Several days later, Stuart went back to Hwa Ja’s house, ready to take her to be his wife. The paperwork was done and the chaplain was waiting. He was carrying a box with him and he was dressed in his finest military dress clothes. He knocked on the door.
There was no answer. He knocked again.
“Hwa Ja?” he called. Again, he knocked. Something was wrong. He went to a neighbor’s house.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he asked the bewildered woman who answered. “But, I’m trying to find Hwa Ja?” He pointed to the house next to her. The woman put her hand to her mouth and started speaking quickly, yelling to someone inside. A man came to the door.
“You look for them?” he asked Stuart.
“Yes, sir! You see, we’re supposed to get married and…”
“You do not know…” said the man.
“What? What don’t I know?” Stuart asked. The rhythm of his heart threatened to tear his chest open. He could hear it in his ears.
“Hwa Ja gone. She die, soldier,” said the man, looking at him with pity. “Family gone, left.”
This was not possible. She couldn’t have died. Why didn’t anyone tell him? Why would her parents leave like that? What about Haneul? He’d promised Hwa Ja he’d take care of her!
“Haneul! Her little girl. Where is she?” Stuart asked. The man shrugged. Stuart slammed his hand into the door frame and yelled. “Where’s her daughter, Mister?”
The terrified man pushed his wife inside the house and shouted at the crazy man to leave. Stuart stared at the muddy road as he stumbled off the porch. Gone? He let the box slide out of his arms and into the mud, spilling the contents.
A white wedding dress, trimmed in many-colored butterflies just for Hwa Ja, now smeared with water and dirt.
He had promised to take care of her. He’d promised! Haneul…
“I’ll find her,” he said to himself. “I’ll find her.” He clenched his fist and walked back toward the base as the July monsoon rain started again.
“Did you ever find the little girl?” asked Clark, now on his fourth beer. The tears were streaming down Stuart’s face. Uncharacteristic for Stuart to cry like that, Clark thought. This was a man feeling the emotions he’d denied for years. Years of regret, guilt, and unresolved pain.
“No,” Stuart sniffed and composed himself. He took a swig of beer and lit another cigarette. “I looked everywhere. I tried orphanages and homes. I went back to Hwa Ja’s house and kept returning there for weeks, hoping that Haneul would return with her grandparents. I even sent my vision out through the crows as far as Seoul, but that didn’t work because there was no way they could find her in a sea of people. No one ever came back. I shipped out a month later and I kept checking back at Humphreys for news for a while, but after a few years, I had to give it up.” He took a sip and stared out the window. After a minute he started to talk loudly.
“I am supposed to be the big problem solver, right? I can figure out anything, find the brightest jewels and the rarest things, but I couldn’t find Haneul. I broke my promise, Clark.” He stood up and put his cigarette out.
“That little girl in my shop yesterday?” he asked. His friend nodded for him to go on.
“She looked so much like Haneul did when I met her in the rain that day with her mother.”
To be continued…
Picture by: butterfly_by_pennamore-deviantart
Special Thanks to Dr. Sang Lee, Southeastern Louisiana University, for information on S. Korean history, customs, and names.